03/04/2003 12:00AM

Magna vision long way from reality

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A proposal by Magna Entertainment Corporation to build a $250 million racing, entertainment, and retail complex in Dixon, Calif., a small rural city 20 miles west of Sacramento, faces many hurdles.

Even by the most optimistic appraisal, racing would not begin there before 2006. The project's secondary phase, which would include stores, restaurants, a multiscreen theater, and a hotel/conference center, probably would not be completed before 2010, estimated Marshall Drack, Dixon's economic development director.

Magna officially submitted plans for a Dixon Downs racetrack to Dixon city officials on Monday and paid a variety of fees as the first step in the process to build what Jim McAlpine, president and CEO of Magna, calls "the first of a new generation of racetracks."

The plan now faces various stages of review by local officials. Part of the process would include public review of the project. Magna must also obtain at least seven specific regulatory approvals before any construction would start.

The 260 acres of land that Magna owns in Dixon's northeast section is totally undeveloped. Water, sewage, gas, and electricity would have to be provided, as well as roads.

The success of the privately financed Pac Bell Park in San Francisco raises the question of whether voters would approve public funding to construct Dixon Downs.

Don Erickson, a former mayor of Dixon who serves as Magna's special project coordinator for Dixon Downs, said of private financing: "It's absolutely essential to take that road."

Drack said some sources of public funding that did not obligate the city of Dixon might be available.

F. Jack Liebau, who heads Magna's racing operations in California, could not be reached for comment.

The $250 million estimated price tag for the entire project may be a bit low, considering the $65 million Magna needed to build a restaurant and elevator at Santa Anita and the $95 million the company spent for a training center in Florida.

Even Drack, who calls the plan "quite impressive," conceded, "To put in your own water and sewage can be very expensive."

Magna officials have met with Dixon officials for more than two years just to reach the point of submitting plans for Dixon Downs.

They held a town meeting in October 2001 to acquaint residents with their plans. That discussion centered solely on a racetrack, and the plan has undergone multiple changes since, including the addition of the entertainment-retail complex.

"I think this is a better package," Erickson said, adding that the revised plans will make the proposition "more profitable" for Dixon.

Construction would provide an estimated 1,000 jobs, according to the proposal.

The track itself would be 1 1/8 miles and allow one-turn mile races to be run. In addition, there would be a one-mile turf course built at a double width to maximize usage and provide for larger fields. The stable area would house more than 1,600 horses with 260 apartments for backstretch personnel.

The concept of mixing racing, entertainment, and retail elements has previously been proposed by Magna at Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, and Golden Gate Fields, located 45 minutes from Dixon in Albany, Calif. Residents there held a town meeting last month about the possible addition of shops and a hotel on Golden Gate Fields property.